By Christopher Sharrett.
Bruno Dumont is among our most important filmmakers, a fact that has gone mostly unnoticed outside Europe. His particular significance seems unrecognized in the US. There are very few critical essays about him of any depth and intelligence, except for a couple of notable contributions in Senses of Cinema and Sight and Sound. There is a seriousness to Dumont that places him with Bergman, Dreyer, Ozu, Buñuel, Mizoguchi, Antonioni, Renoir and Haneke in terms of realized achievement, and a commitment to matters deeply affecting human life in the late twentieth- and twenty-first centuries. But his neglect extends to even relatively trivial issues. I am appalled at some of the online summaries of his films, which often miss entirely the major issues of his work, and even fail on plot points. Most remarks on his early masterpiece L’Humanité (1999) fail to comment at all on Pharaon de Winter, the French Realist painter from Bailleul, Dumont’s home town in French Flanders. The film’s protagonist (Emmanuel Schotte) is named De Winter. We are told the painter is the character’s great-grandfather – the point is missed or undeveloped by critics even though the character stares at a De Winter self-portrait on a wall in his house early in the film, and contributes it to a museum exhibition. The failure to comment on Dumont’s references to the fine arts is of a piece with the general neglect of his work, and the broader rejection of the humanist project he represents.
Any full accounting of Dumont is difficult for the same reasons that all great art is difficult to describe and assess; the achievement of significant art often defies available vocabulary unless one resorts to the formulae of theory. Dumont presents special challenges to the film critic, since his inspiration comes, as a former teacher of philosophy, not very often from film but from literature and philosophy (he has been asked who his “favorite” philosopher is, as if the thinkers of the past are flavors of ice cream – he has mentioned, however, the Greeks and the German idealists). I am very happy of course that he is not a prototypical movie brat (he is far too mature and intelligent); my point is simply that his philosophical concerns are often subtly inscribed in his imagery, proposing special tasks for close reading. He has often discussed painting, and the plastic arts will provide me with a strategy for appreciating Dumont.
As I think about Dumont, I cannot help but recall a remark said to me many years ago by my old friend Ramiro, a gay Cuban émigré of the left, who was disgusted by the US, a nation that, as he said, “has so little concern for the sacred.” He was not referring to a deity, and was well aware of the pervasive, irrational, born-again rightist religiosity in this country, with its mindless churchgoing and adherence to religious doctrine. He was far more concerned with the absence of respect for contemplation; for the spiritual’s ties to creativity; for persons of genuine accomplishment in the arts – but what qualifies as art these days is often highly dubious; for one’s interior life (mainly because interior life is erased by consumer capitalism); for revered sites – not involved with militarism; for the beauty of the natural world, perhaps the most profound embodiment of the sacred (where it has not been destroyed by capitalism); for a life that is not seen as trivial and disposable with all commodities; and respect for genuine sentiment and spaces of common regard. The term “sacred” has itself been wildly distorted – on a recent news show, the remaining metal from the World Trade Center left over from “9/11” is called “sacred,” a preposterous but common idea that gives a mystical aspect to political-historical events. The lack of the sacred in the profoundest sense isn’t unique to the US, but here the disregard of the contemplative aspect of life, of that which makes us fully human, is held, it is fair to say, in great contempt for all the palaver about religion, with its attendant irrationality.
Dumont recaptures the idea of the spiritual, linking it not to the hereafter but to that which defines us, with “that” always a topic of investigation, the dignity of the human always offset by something awful. For Dumont, the sacred/profane dichotomy is a dangerous delusion; the spiritual is embodied in the physical world, the human. He joins F. R. Leavis’s essential question, reformulated slightly by his student Robin Wood: “Why do we live? What is it that we should be living for?” Leavis remarked: “‘Life’ is a necessary word,” but adamantly refused to define this necessarily expansive term, beyond associating it with the creative impulse and its spontaneity, ideas basic to the Quattrocento’s redefining of the human. The pursuit of human values must be exploratory and tentative, with no concern for establishing rigid definitions, precisely to emphasize the ceaseless nature of the task of understanding what we are, of learning our most positive capabilities. Contra critics of those who dare use the term “human nature,” the human is always subject to new evaluation as the human subject changes with history. Humanity has, of course, produced the H-bomb as well as Shakespeare. But artists concerned with the issue of the human (Dumont being the case in point at this writing) affirm human life even in the face of its terrible contradictions (Camus remains a model).
The affirmation of life can also be constructed as total or near-total negation – Pasolini, one of the great radical humanists, who made Accatone (1961; with the extraordinary “Wer setzen uns mit Tranen nieder” of the St. Matthew Passion its major musical theme) and the Trilogy of Life (The Decameron , The Canterbury Tales , Arabian Nights ), could make Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) by way of remarking on the doubt one needs intelligently to sustain us in the wake of twentieth century horrors. The novels of Thomas Hardy, and even Dawn of the Dead (1979) are other examples of humanism as negation, an admission that human society has monstrous potentials if a recognition of failure, embodied in economic-historical circumstance and the individual’s failure to assess the self, is not perceived. The sense of counterpoint in Dumont, I will argue, provides the director with his sense of contradiction, of eros/life competing with death in the everyday. All of Bruno Dumont’s films, certainly Flandres (2004), Hadewijch (2009), Hors Satan (2011), and Camille Claudel 1915 (2012), deal with life fighting a battle against the death instinct imposed by bourgeois society; his film Twentynine Palms (2003) focuses totally on a strategy of negation, pointing to death as the defining feature of postmodern life, especially in the US.
Today the relevance of the humanist impulse to academe is especially important. As religious doctrine affects all institutions in the US, “secular humanism” is viewed as something akin to a pact with the devil. Human values become irrelevant or anathema in a society increasingly based on authority and repression, the latter frequently in gussied-up form that becomes acceptable, the consequence of repressive tolerance (sex in the media, etc.). But what passes for the left of course also has its problems with humanism. For decades, humanism was deemed “unscientific,” dependent on the most dubious notions of human nature, basically reformist, and linked to liberalism. Some of these points are not wrong, but they fail to take into account, despite all the writing on Marxism as a humanism, that humanism as reductionist and an instrument of liberalism is a fairly recent critique, with humanism dismissed in favor of, as example, Althusser and his tortured base-superstructure rethinkings. It is not unreasonable to speak of human nature, recognizing that this nature is always in flux, varying with gender, race, class, and historical circumstance. And what is the purpose of revolution if not the betterment of human society?
Humanism as Radical Position
Dumont’s major project is to restore interest in authentic humanism, a term he has used on various occasions – it appears in the first sentence of his interview on the New Wave DVD of Hadewijch. Given his emphasis on the human subject, his meticulous, luminous compositions, Dumont is compared to Bresson, a filmmaker he respects but distances himself from, since Bresson was a Christian believer while Dumont is firmly humanist, interested in religion only as it is manifest as a concern of art. The continued use of Bresson to understand Dumont is unfortunate, since at the levels of both form and content Dumont has little relationship to Bresson – Dumont’s visual and aural techniques alone should key the audience to the difference. He has stated repeatedly that what fascinates him is the recurrence of the religious impulse in representation, which is where the spiritual resides, not in spurious doctrines.
Most important is his interest in replacing religion with art, seeing religion as “primitive” and unable to address authentic human aspirations and anxieties. For Dumont, the domain of the sacred resides alongside the erotic, where flesh is conjoined to life (as well as to the death wish, given the resistances of Western patriarchal capitalist society), an issue crucial to Dumont. He is among the filmmakers who see classical music and the plastic arts intimately involved with cinema; he is in dialogue with them, in part as a way of seeing if classical art has any application to the current emotional landscape, affected as it is by late capitalism and attenuated patriarchal law. This is a mark of his seriousness, his commitment to understanding our current predicament. Unlike Tarkovsky, no less serious a director, Dumont does not see a need for classical art to bolster or, in a sense, justify the still-emerging art form of cinema. He sees the innate value of cinema and all art as self-evident. Haneke embraces classical art, especially music, as an ambiguous solace in the postmodern era, often in competition with a hellish world. Dumont by contrast uses music of the past, diegetically and non-diegetically, to comment on his characters, to suggest their particular human grace, or to speak to their isolation, or the barrenness of their circumstances.
The social predicament of characters is important, especially in the films shot in Bailleul, where the emptiness of the streets and the ambling about of Freddy and his pals (in La Vie de Jésus ) remarks on the deindustrialized present. Let me emphasize: each of Dumont’s films is profoundly ideological, concerned with the consequences of capitalism for the human subject, very focused on the horrors of patriarchy and its impact on women (all of his films, but especially Twentynine Palms and Camille Claudel 1915), the relationship of capitalism and/or imperialism to misogyny (L’Humanité, Flandres ), and the snares for the female of pursuing the spiritual in a civilization dominated by patriarchal dogma (Hadewijch, Hors Satan).
Dumont’s humanism is essential and foundational; it hearkens to humanism’s origins in the Italian Renaissance and the Northern Renaissance. An early scene in La Vie de Jésus is especially instructive. Freddy and his gang go to the hospital room of their friend Cloclo, dying of AIDS. They form a nervous tableau around his bed. Quinquin, the most unprepossessing of the gang, stares at a print of Giotto’s The Raising of Lazarus (c. 1304) on the wall. He remarks to Freddy that the painting is about “a guy who comes back to life.” The funny horror-film comment isn’t wrong; Giotto’s mummified Lazarus is expressive of the Biblical idea that Lazarus was rotting away when called forth by Jesus. The parallel with the extremely stricken Cloclo, covered with sores, is obvious. The use of Giotto in this early scene of Dumont’s first film is by no means incidental or marginal to all that follows. It is not stretching things to say that Dumont begins his discourse on the human body under the sign of the pre-Renaissance and the Quattrocento, with the Renaissance way of understanding the human absolutely central to his art, his sense of composition and his respect for the human form. Understanding the fundamental impulses of the Renaissance is key to assessing Dumont. In asserting what I will, I necessarily have to set aside the numerous material circumstances of the Italian Renaissance, but such a review is far beyond my concerns here.
Renaissance humanism is usually seen as modest, a revival of interest in antiquity and an expansion of the curriculum. On the contrary, the art of the Renaissance, north and south, contains humanism as a profoundly radical gesture, an outright revolt against everything represented by the fourteenth century, with its plague, constant inter-imperial warfare, and schism within the Church – the major chink in the armor of Church authority pointing the way to a new society based on human values. Central to these values is simply a celebration of human life, and especially the erotic, over repression and death. The paintings of the Quattrocento are always a revelation. With Giotto, the great “prophet” of the Italian Renaissance, we see personality appearing in faces, articulation that overcomes “saintliness,” as well as Giotto’s remarkable experiments with perspective, and his brightened color palette. The return to antiquity brings a remarkable eroticism, as the figure’s body (regardless of recurrent religious themes) becomes so obviously erotic, so brilliantly articulated, as to almost tear through its clothing. The rise of nude sculpture had at its rationale the idealization (which in fact means the celebration of eros) of the ancient world – there is no mistaking the adoration of sex and the life principle, a riposte to the repression of Church and State, best exemplified in Donatello’s David (c. 1440), about which more presently.
With the rise of humanism we see a shift in the order of things, with power drifting slowly (the change was certainly gradual, with authority still very much with papacy and kingship) to a new financier and merchant class, most famously represented by Lorenzo de Medici, whose support of so much great art must today be read as a political and sexual (his apparent bisexuality – suggested by his many contacts with friends known for “sodomy”) gesture, a movement toward the emergence of financier capitalism that also points a way toward socialism (the commune features of Florence). Humanism, in its origins, therefore, has profoundly radical impulses, today mostly lost as humanist thinking is merely synonymous with “not accepting God,” a fairly banal idea.
Dumont, Donatello, and the Quattrocento’s Eros
Dumont’s use of counterpoint educates us in its origins in the visual culture of the Quattrocento, whose use of sex as well as the destructive impulse is ingenious to the point that one wonders about artists’ apparent foreknowledge of psychoanalysis. The contrapposto stance in sculpture, one leg relaxed, the stiff opposing leg weight-bearing, suggests the dialogue of male and female, or the militancy of the defense of the masculine in opposition to the life-giving feminine. Donatello’s David, the first free-standing nude sculpture since antiquity, is a remarkable example of contrapposto, and in so being conveys the tense dynamics of the erotic in a remarkably frank sense. The young, just-at-the-cusp-of-puberty David stands ostentatiously naked, his elegant boots and helmet-hat (causing some viewers to see him as Mercury) emphasizing his nudity as very self-conscious sexual display. His body is relaxed, feminine in its S-curve, his left foot (of the relaxed “feminine” leg) on the decapitated head of Goliath, whose face could be read as ecstatic in death. David’s left hand, bent at the wrist, rests on his hip, another feminine coding; the opposing arm casually holds an outsize sword with a large and very phallic grip. The two arms, bent at the elbows, cause the gaze to move toward the figure’s developing genitals; despite the feminine quality of the image, an emphasis is placed on the authority of the phallus – here, the homoerotic competes with patriarchal ideology. The rear of the statue reveals the work’s greatest controversy. A long feather from Goliath’s helmet snakes up David’s thigh, its tip pointing toward his anus, as if Goliath is intent on sodomizing the boy even in death. Although the statue contains an extremely radical theme – the obliteration of the Oedipal construct by androgyny, by a figure that we would today call transgendered – there is the implication (approved by Donatello?) that sex might yet be vanquished by death, or that sex will still be controlled by patriarchal authority, or, more positively, that anal sex will insinuate its way into the Oedipal construct that David has in fact embraced by the killing of Goliath/the father.
The erotic legacy of the Quattrocento, this time with a strong emphasis on the death instinct (and its political foundation), is in another Donatello masterpiece, his equestrian sculpture Gattamelata (“Honey Cat,” late 1440s) in Padua. The statue honors Erasmo da Narni, a condottiere (mercenary for the Venetian Republic). The huge, mounted figure sits armored; from the left side one sees his right hand holding aloft a baton, the line of which continues on the right, carried downward by his sword, further emphasized by his elongated spurs. The statue sits not on a pedestal but a cenotaph, an empty tomb that memorializes heroics. The sense of sexuality transformed into and crusading for death could not be more complete – so many of the macho images of subsequent centuries flow from this sculpture. And yet, the cenotaph is decorated with little naked putti, always signifiers of life and eros.
Counterpoint that pits life/sex against death appears early in Dumont. In La Vie de Jésus, the genital sex of Freddy and his Marie must be seen in relation to the oppression of Marie (the real emblem of life-affirming eros) and the murder of Kader. Freddy himself embodies the struggle between sex and death; his epilepsy is an ordinary human struggle, but also as exteriorization of a basic corruption, his determination to destroy everyone, including himself, an issue we confront up until his final scene that nearly references his motorbike near-suicide, his naked torso also referencing his sexuality.
In L’Humanité, the perverse, in the sense of sex-turned-to-oppression, is figured in the Domino-Joseph relationship, with Joseph finally revealed as a murderer of a child (a female). Pharaon’s voyeurism raises questions – his role as Holy Fool can be permitted, in my view, only so far. The frequent sex of Twentynine Palms, the most ostensibly erotic of Dumont’s films to date, is, by the filmmaker’s own evaluation, a horror film, with the male-female relationship utterly poisoned. The contrapuntal themes of Flandres are evidenced first in the treatment of the farm girl Barbe by André and friends (and by the empty region itself) is “answered” by the imperialist war and the castration sequence. And Flandres is followed by Hadewjich, a film about potential eroticism, suffocated by the naivete of Céline, whose spiritual quest is oblivious to its necessarily erotic aspect until the last moment of the film. Hors Satan, not unlike Pasolini’s Teorema, reasserts the link between eros and death, but Dumont affirms eros’s potentials, its foundation for life. In all of his films, Dumont rethinks the sacred, linking the sex drive to nature and the eternal, much like Botticelli’s demolishing of the cult of the Virgin Mary, eroticizing this figure in The Birth of Venus (1486) and Primavera (c. 1482), while understanding the drive toward death as intimately connected to life/sex/nature – and Dumont is political enough to know that the death instinct flows from human choices in the human world, so to think of death as “profane” is a terrible oversimplification.
Dumont and Realism
Dumont’s humanist vision must be associated with French Realism, chiefly figures such as Courbet, the great anarchist of the Realists, and painters close to Dumont’s home in Bailleul such as Pharaon De Winter, a much more conservative figure. Dumont speaks of his first film, La Vie de Jésus, being inspired in part by a chance visit to an exhibit of Georges Braque’s late landscape painting, whose earthy, violent representationalism sets aside the painter’s pioneering work in Cubism, a keystone of the modern, which had Dumont thinking that Cubism was less pure, less authentic than what followed. In an interview included in the Masters of Cinema DVD of La Vie de Jésus, Dumont comments on Braque’s landscapes, where the sky seems to merge with a rough earth, and a plough, a near-abstraction, an essence of form. Dumont may be seen as a “realist” in his attempt to find the essence of the image, to dispense with romanticism, to interrogate closely the nature of the human subject as well as the natural and fabricated worlds. He is modern in his observational long takes (certainly not as long as those of, for example, Béla Tarr), often elliptical editing, and avoidance of traditional narrative. But his sensibility avoids that aspect of modernity – and postmodernity – suggestive of disintegration. There is nothing in his artistic practice akin to what one sees at New York galleries or the Whitney Museum. He would see, I think, the remarkable trash-pile assemblages of Mark Dion, or the haunted photographs of Gregory Crewdson, as intriguing formal experiments that chronicle the displacement of the human, and the decay of human society.
The importance of French Realism to Dumont is crucial to appreciating his visual approach. His focus on making us contemplate things, his attempt to control what we see with great deliberation, is obvious. But at other points he follows the example of Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans (1849) or The Painter’s Studio (1855), both of which, like images inside the asylum in Camille Claudel 1915, want the eye to roam freely rather than follow the guide of perspective – in Courbet (The Painter’s Studio), the erotic is at the center, aglow with life, but also in the twisted, Christ-like nude male (explicitly not Christ) behind the canvas. Courbet’s The Origin of the World (1866) is an obvious source for the image of Domino’s pelvis and vagina in L’Humanité.
Realism – which is often anything but real if we are talking about an attempt to “document” the real – is a crucial source for Dumont, but this movement is on a trajectory begun by the Italian and Northern Renaissances. I think of the shared interest in studying the body, the self, and nature, but also for the contrapuntal style that is basic to Dumont’s cinema, both within each film and as each film in his oeuvre relates to others. The Quattrocento resides in Dumont’s ideas about the body, sexual relations, landscape, the manufactured world. The body and the genitals are a constant topic, along with the context of sexuality within nature and culture. The sex act can have a coarse, animal-like aspect (this is Dumont the French Realist) as human beings struggle for sexual release. Nature is usually verdant and promising (Le Vie de Jésus, L’Humanité, Flandres, Hors Satan) but can be barren, seductive, yet an emblem of waste and catastrophe (Twentynine Palms, but also Flandres).
Dumont, Nudity, and the Ideology of the Couple
I think I must place further in context, given all the complaints about Dumont’s trading in pornography, the filmmaker’s sensibility and the nature of his commitments to the feminine within western society by referring to two works, Masaccio’s Expulsion (c. 1425) and one of the greatest Northern Renaissance works, Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (c. 1435). The former shows Adam and Eve expelled from the gates of Eden, an angel in a beautiful red gown showing the way (yet creating a canopy). A grief-stricken Adam holds his face in his hands. Eve’s tormented expression is shown to us as she covers her breasts and genitals with her hands. We see Eve openly grieving, but we must note that her face is upwardly raised, a devotional and reverential posture through much of art history. Adam’s forward stride reveals his highly articulated genitals, the two testicles and foreskin of the penis – which seems not at rest – all highly detailed. Leo Steinberg, in his masterful The Sexuality of Christ in Renaissance Art and in Modern Oblivion, notes that Christian theology held that after the fall, the shame of Adam and Eve was accompanied by the loss of control of their bodies, and their being subject to the whims of carnality. The doctrine brought very contradictory notions into Christian society about the goodness of the body – the Masaccio painting for centuries was defaced with wreaths around the genitals of Adam and Eve until the painting’s restoration.
Dumont shows the human genitals and the sex act in a manner actually expressive of Christian doctrine while tearing it apart. The body is rendered as beautiful; it is “out of control” not because of the Fall, but because of the actions of the male – Dumont is one of the great unacknowledged feminists of the cinema, as we recognize his situating the sacred firmly with women from La Vie de Jésus onward. Eve’s upward gaze in Expulsion, a common trope of yearning and expectation as much as contrition, is most gripping in Dumont when given to the female (Marie in La Vie de Jésus, Domino in L’Humanité, The Girl in Hors Satan, Céline in Hadewijch, Camille in Camille Claudel 1915).
Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Couple (1434) is a remarkable comment on sexual politics, and appropriate for illuminating Dumont, a native of French Flanders whose ideology and aesthetic evidence share the vision of his kinsman. The apparently devotional image of the matrimonial moment could be a joke; there were several Arnolfinis in Bruges at the time Van Eyck painted, and some of the apparent religious symbols (the little dog, the oranges, the shoes, the cruciforms in the candelabra) may be Van Eyck tweaking our noses – the inscription on the back wall (“Jan Van Eyck was here”) seems mirthful, at least as translated into English. If these are jokes (and even if not), they serve the subversion of the painting, the counterpoint of the open window with its magnificent light on the left (life, freedom, the erotic) contrasted with the dark red marital bed on the right, which closes off space and darkens the image. Above all there is the couple. The woman, clad in a beautiful verdant green, looks sheepish, but bright-eyed and hopeful; her husband, by contrast, is wholly sinister – his face has one of the most unnerving expressions I can think of in portraiture. His large dark hat and dark coat (these are actually purple, darkened with age) and pious gesture remind us what is implied by “true love,” by romantic love under patriarchal arrangements. The tension of this magnificent painting is the tension of gender relations: the hopeful expectation of the erotic/feminine acquiescing in or destroyed outright by death/the masculine.
This tension appears throughout Dumont: the love between Marie and Kader, followed by the killing of Kader, in La Vie de Jésus, all followed by Freddy’s semi-nude “resurrection”; the murder of the young girl and the mutilation of her vulva, followed by Pharaon’s playing his harpsichord music that is the preamble to L’Humanité; the anal rape of David and his “revenge,” following his frantic sex (mainly for his pleasure) with Katia in Twentynine Palms; the sex with Barbe, followed by the rape, subsequent castration, and killings of Flandres; Céline’s love of the young Arab man, resulting in an explosion in Hadewijch; the various complex acts of the “savior” Stranger in Hors Satan; the physical and emotional suffocation of Camille, whose beauty is asserted over monstrous piety – her brother Paul in Camille Claudel 1915.
There is a moment in Twentynine Palms that I have felt to be, since first viewing the film, a kind of answer to Botticelli’s Mars and Venus (c. 1483). But it isn’t important if Dumont wishes to address Botticelli per se; rather, he takes on the painter’s fundamental assertions at a time of enormous human creativity, and, I would suggest, hope. This exquisite painting is one of the Quattrocento’s most sublime paeans to eroticism, again using counterpoint. The two mythical figures lie together after intercourse, but lie facing each other rather than resting side-by-side. The rendering of Venus clearly once more incorporates and subverts the expression usually given to the Virgin Mary. Her body is voluptuous underneath her long gown, its gold trim accenting her breasts. Her gaze seems pensive and a bit triumphant – sex has vanquished the war god, who is fast asleep after intercourse, the little satyrs laughing as they hold his “lance.” Mars is oblivious even as a baby satyr blows a horn in his left ear – he has been rendered passive and harmless at last.
In Twentynine Palms, David and Katia rest naked (David retains his shoes and socks, his porn-star appearance emphasizing his general coarseness) on a huge boulder after sex; they are in the Mars and Venus position. But David is irritable. Katia cover his genitals with her left hand. They are utterly alone – the landscape is rocky and arid. A desert, rather than Botticelli’s forest, stretches out for miles. They soon complain about sunburn – nature has far from an empathetic relationship with the two characters. The erotic still lives in Katia, but it/she faces obliteration.
La Vie de Jésus
Anyone viewing La Vie de Jésus for the first time may be perturbed. The title may suggest to some a Bible epic set in the Middle East two-thousand years ago, but that is not the case. Not only is the film set in contemporary Bailleul, there is no Jesus, and no familiar religious narrative. One could pretend that Freddy (David Douche) is a Christ figure, and his bunch of loutish motorbiking pals his disciples, if one is insistent on a mythographic-Jungian approach. But this view is both silly and counterproductive. Dumont has made a film inspired in part by Ernest Renan’s rather pantheistic book on the non-supernatural aspects of Jesus, but Dumont has jettisoned even Renan, and while pantheism seems to inform Dumont, no “ism” is applicable, although, as I’ve suggested above, various currents from Western art, and the sensibilities that fed them and which they helped produce, run through this film.
One cannot help but note the film’s sense of barrenness, the utter emptiness of provincial life, which is a key trope of Dumont. The viewer often looks at an open rural landscape under a sunny or overcast sky; sometimes the image has a counter shot revealing a spectator, such as Freddy, whose gaze at nature we can take as revealing his humanity, his openness to beauty, but it is as easy to witness this as Freddy’s empty-headedness, his inability to respond to the world with anything except violence.
The stultifying effect of poverty seems more crucial to understanding the film with each viewing. Dumont was criticized by the citizens of Bailleul for portraying their city (which is also Dumont’s) as a ghost town, dying or dead. The rendering detracts of course from the uniqueness of French Flanders, a repository of several cultures, evident even in some of the more prosaic features of the city. But by removing as much as he can of the hubbub of daily life, Dumont allows greater room for the human subject. Emptiness, as I suggested above, makes the narrative familiar to the US and other audiences I think; we have here a marker of the deindustrialized present, with its accompanying torpor, poverty, and a sense of despair that becomes manifest, as it is in America, in violence. Freddy and his pals are yelled at for living always on “the dole.” Given what they do (their violence), the remark has far less to do with the boys being “lazy” than a contextualization of male violence, an eternal immaturity in the male (in contrast to Marie, working in the market, keen in her diligence, her sensitivity), even as they are trapped by a futureless provincialism.
The palette of the film is necessarily brown, the old brick row houses of Bailleul dominant in the film’s color scheme, broken occasionally by the artificial-looking primary colors of signs, such as that over the market where Marie (Marjorie Cottreel) works. The café-bar of Freddy’s mother works as magnificent visual counterpoint. It is a squat, white building set oddly within the row houses, its roof composed of two odd peaks. The café is a marker of poverty and the prosaic, as well as the ignored universal torment outside this provincial cocoon; the mother and her few customers watch a TV, broadcasting news about genocides and starvation. The mother clucks her tongue and goes about her business, while Freddy, sometimes bare-chested, plays with a finch in a cage (there is the idea of course that Freddy cannot or will not break with the mother, a familiar situation as economic prospects break down internationally). The occasional “color pops” of the café and market serve, like the municipal band in which Freddy and his non-talented buddies participate, to remind us that the relief from boredom actually presages destruction.
It strikes me that La Vie de Jésus has been underappreciated as a powerful gay text, or, rather, a film that investigates that part of male culture (a very large part indeed) that denies its homosexuality. It is a film about the male group – it would be profitable to compare it to the work of Howard Hawks, especially Rio Bravo (1959) and Hatari! (1962), films about men lounging about and gabbing until they are motivated to take some sort of action, the camera gazing lovingly. A signature still from La Vie de Jésus shows Freddy and his ugly pals sitting on the steps of a public building in Bailleul; on of the boys sits bare-chested, and all seem hard-pressed to cope with the hot sun of a Flanders summer. Heat is a key element, provoking nudity, but also a sense of inertia and anger, manifest in the gang’s first confrontation with Kader and his family.
The homosexual/homoerotic element is most manifest in the emotional life of Freddy. He wants Marie to love him mainly, it seems, as a way of easing his insecurity. His emotional attachments are most certainly with his gang, of which he is the unquestioned central figure. The film could therefore be seen as a highly honest teenpic in its examination of the emotional formation of the male group, with its specific codes of professionalism (fixing vehicles, refusing to eat a “greasy” lunch provided by a local vendor). The more obvious signifier may be the rape of the young schoolgirl, denied by the gang as rape (we see only a little of what they do to her. This form of denial and evasion is represented by Dumont as basic, as part of the given world of these boy-men. The female is here – as well as in the romantic scenes between Freddy and Marie – a repository for semen. She is incapable of the depths of feeling enjoyed by men (D.H. Lawrence is relevant). There may be a need to qualify the statement about sex and romance between Marie and Freddy, since Marie seems satisfied, at least to a point, although it is clear that Freddy is the initiator, the one who places demands. Sex is a way of constantly reconstructing a sexual identity, hardly the case with Marie, who does need Freddy for emotional security.
The key moments of the film are the rape and most especially, the murder of Kader, whose body is tied to the trunk of the gang’s car as if he were slaughtered game. Much precedes this moment that makes the film a meditation as much on small-town, provincial life as it is on the male group. Freddy and the gang make “Arab-sounding” noises when Kader and his family enter the café, following the off-key band recital, one of the few legitimate activities of the motorbikers. As Kader and his parents leave, the gang (assisted, I think, by a few other patrons) sings a bit of “La Marseillaise,” as nationalism and racism comes to the forefront, reminding us not only of the narrative’s ideological context (the long history of French imperialism had some notably horrific moments in the postwar period, such as the murder in Paris of Arabic Algerian nationals during the Algerian War, their bodies thrown in the Seine), but of the process producing a lumpenized working class that identifies with its oppressors. That process is barely sketched here; it is enough that we see it manifest, along with the sexual politics of the male, while Dumont creates a profound sense of disturbance at the same time that he insists on the erotic, and on the potentials of the human. But the disturbance is unrelieved.
It is Quinquin, the homeliest and somewhat comical “disciple” of the gang, the one who saw and commented on The Raising of Lazarus, who spies Marie speaking and walking with Kader. Quinquin stops being the endearing comedian as he transforms into informant and monster. The ugliest member of the group, we ask if he is trying to be better accepted, to gain special favor from Freddy? This may be true, but the most apparent answer is that he is honest in his spontaneous, unquestioned race-hatred. And he is not quite the malevolent informant; he is so stupid he tells Marie that he told Freddy of her tryst. But instead of causing an explosion, the confession merely makes Marie beg Freddy for forgiveness.
The killing of Kader seems the moment that forecloses all possibility for Freddy. The signifiers suggesting his “redemption” must be called into question. His epilepsy and various medical treatments (including the “crown of thorns” array of wires on his scalp to test his brain) can be read as exteriorizing, in a totalizing way, the moral infirmities of Freddy and Bailleul. But this would impose too mythographic a reading. I think, rather, of the illness as of a piece with the infirmities of humanity. Dumont is here offering a sketch – in this first work – of a predicament, not moralizing, but the film is assuredly moral fiction.
The more I view La Vie de Jésus, the more I see it as a film about Marie, who supplies the film with its grace notes. One thinks of her trip with Freddy on the chair-lift – it is totally her scene, as she “lifts” Freddy out of the pointlessness of his world (if we see this as a biker film, we must note that the motorbikes are less than what the boys really want, and the gang goes in circles rather than traverses the terrain – as a biker film, La Vie de Jésus is less moralistic but far more moral than The Wild Angels (1966), arguing the dead-end aspect of this kind of male hobbyism).
Marie is central because she projects beauty at every level, certainly in her exquisite physicality. Her moment with Kader, their embrace, is most representative. The camera closes on her face very tightly – this is her benediction moment, her bringing of peace as well as her personal attempt at genuine solace before her sex act with Kader in the shell of a building (the camera allows her privacy). The embrace is the moment that has Kader look upward at a ruined arch and the sky, the “Dumont gaze” that becomes the signifier of the human’s connection to something transcendent. It is really Marie’s gaze, her possibilities on display. But unlike Domino in L’Humanité, her motives are not wholly positive, thought-through, and with concern for others. She cannot break with her circumstances. She laughs with the others at “the Arabs.” If Freddy needs her for a sense of identity, and a continuation of his mama’s boy understanding of affection, she needs him for a place in this narrow society, for which she cannot be entirely blamed.
Freddy must attempt suicide, then once more hurl himself into a field, making a few faintly audible sobs as the camera shows him encompassed by nature. His attempt at “redemption” is tentative, not fully realized, but a way by which Dumont supplies his affirmation of the human subject, portrayed at the moment as mostly repugnant (the very casting of David Douche seems to me a step in that direction; all of Dumont’s remarks about his being “perfect” for the role tell more than what the words might momentarily suggest). Nevertheless, Dumont’s insistence on the human necessitates our embrace of the ugly, even the horrendous.
La Vie de Jésus announces Dumont’s interest in landscapes, all shot with patience, some gloomy, with brown fields covered with overcast skies. But he invests radiance in a field of new grass. And portraits and still lives are also important, shot with patience and deliberation, as he introduces an insistence on a warts-and-all acceptance of being, always implying strong potentials therein.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is currently revisiting Bach’s Violin Concertos, and the novels of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, and George Eliot.
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